The problems with the smartwatch even Apple can't solve

The rumor that Apple is hard at work on a smartwatch keeps popping up, but that type of product has some issues that even Apple might not be able to properly address.

09 MetaWatch on wrist
MetaWatch Strata -- Image credit: James Kendrick/ZDNet

We've heard for quite some time that Apple is hard at work on its next big thing, a smartwatch. There's even a product name all picked out by the pundits, the iWatch. According to persistent rumors Apple has dozens, maybe even hundreds, of its brightest employees getting the iWatch ready to blow everybody away. As exciting as rumors make the smartwatch sound, I don't think Apple is going to be able to adequately address some practical issues.

Smartwatches are nothing new, they've been around for a few years. We've seen models that simply serve as a second screen for the smartphone, some that connect directly to the web to retrieve information, and others that contain a whole Android device that can run apps.

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Lack of engaging funtions for a smartwatch

None of these smartwatches have captured the attention of buyers. First, while it's cool when you first try a smartwatch, after a short period it gets, well, boring. I've tried several smartwatches and I really like the concept. Unfortunately, the limited functionality wears thin over time and the smartwatch ends up sitting on the shelf.

It's useful to a point, then it becomes readily apparent that it's not as cool as you thought when you first got the smartwatch. If you're like most people you have the smartphone, in the case of Apple's iWatch that would be the iPhone, in your hand most of the time that you're free to use a smartwatch. There's no compelling reason to look at the watch when you have a nice, big, high-resolution screen in your hand. The smartwatch ends up being used mostly as, you guessed it, a watch. Even that is less than useful as the time is displayed on that iPhone in the hand.

The watches that serve as second screens are a good example of the lack of engaging functions for smartwatches. These connect to a smartphone via Bluetooth and basically show phone notifications on the watch. This usually consists of caller ID, email, social network updates, and text messages. This is useful in that it you can keep the phone in the purse or pocket and check the watch when a notification comes in. Of course, over time the phone makes it back into the hand so it's easier to just check the incoming notifications on the phone.

Apple would probably give the iWatch the ability to run apps to make it useful. It might run full iOS or a special subset of it to run special apps that provide engaging functionality. That would almost have to be the case to give any reason at all to get buyers to open their wallets.

There's one big problem with this approach, the screen. The tiny screen, to be exact. A smartwatch shouldn't have a display bigger than a square inch to avoid being too big to be fashionable, and even that's pretty big on the wrist. Maybe Apple would try to make a watch with a longer, narrow display, but it would still have to be big enough to display enough information to be useful. That would be tough to do as small screens are not very practical to run apps. There's a reason why smartphone screens have been getting bigger and bigger over time, and they started out much bigger than a tiny watch display. 

The watch display would have to be a touch screen to be practical, and that brings challenges when a screen is that tiny. If you display icons and controls big enough to be tapped with a fingertip, that little screen gets filled up really quickly. You end up with a touch screen that doesn't display much at all which limits the practical functions Apple can give to its fancy iWatch.

Next page: Playing music; The phone watch

But you can play music on a smartwatch!

07 MetaWatch Nexus S side by side
Image credit: James Kendrick/ZDNet

Apple is all about iTunes and playing music so at first blush it would seem to be a perfect fit with the smartwatch. But when you think it through, that's not a practical function for a watch. The watch could wirelessly connect to another device to access the music library, a smartphone makes the most sense, which means either Bluetooth or wi-fi. Wi-fi would be the most practical since the watch would also need it to connect to the web for other stuff.

Having to tether the iWatch to another device makes no sense. Music can already be played on those other devices so why turn listening to music into a two device process?

A better method would be to have music functions totally contained within the watch. That would probably be Apple's preferred method. Having a big music collection reside on the watch isn't practical for the large storage capacity that would need. So you'd need to be streaming music from the cloud like on iOS and OS X, which raises a connectivity issue that would likely turn buyers off.

Wi-fi could be used but then you could only listen to music when a hotspot is available. To be practical the smartwatch would need some sort of 3G or 4G connectivity, which would be a show stopper. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants a watch that requires interaction with a carrier. We hate our carriers already and don't need yet another device to remind us why that is.

Of course you could tether to a phone, but that turns enjoying music into a two device process again. That's just not practical for running around town every day.

On the smartphone the earbuds can stay in the bag and the phone still be used without them. That wouldn't be the case with a watch phone.

Connectivity issues aside, another problem with using a smartwatch to listen to music is how to hear it in public. On the smartphone almost everyone uses wired earbuds and that would be the case with the watch. The problem is it's not practical to plug earbuds into a watch as the wire would get in the way. It would have to be much longer than earbuds used with a phone as it would have to handle any position of the arm wearing the watch. If the wire is too short, those earbuds would be yanked rudely out of the ears if the arm was stretched out. Plus it's not very practical to have the watch tethered to the ears in many situations.

Wireless headphones could be used instead, but few people are willing to use them with phones and the watch will be no different. Even if Apple could convince the masses to use wireless headphones with its magical smartwatch, the reality of having to keep them charged would quickly turn the crowd against it.

Speaking of charging, that brings up another issue that buyers won't like, and that's having a watch (no matter how magical) that has to be charged regularly. People are not going to be happy when their shiny new smartwatch goes dark during the day because they forgot to charge it. This will drive home that the watch doesn't add enough fun and functionality to be worth the hassle of making sure it's charged, updated, and keeping up with the latest cool apps.

But it's a phone!

One function that Apple could put on the iWatch that's not been done in a practical way is to put a whole phone inside it. This Dick Tracy watch would have to handle all phone functions to be worth the effort of using it, and that raises even more issues.

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Talking directly to the watch on phone calls would not work in public as it would be like using a phone on speakerphone all the time. The only way to avoid that is to use some kind of headset. That means wires or some kind of wireless headset as used for listening to music which is as impractical for calls as it is for listening to music.

Some buyers might be willing to use wired earbuds like they do with their iPhone but they'd get tired of always having to do so. On the smartphone the earbuds can stay in the bag and the phone still be used without them. That wouldn't be the case with a watch phone, a big disadvantage compared to a standard phone. And I don't think many users would be willing to go back to those dorky Bluetooth headsets.

Don't count Apple out yet

Apple has surprised us before and while I don't think it can solve these problems perhaps it has one more thing. Maybe they've figured out how to address all the issues I've raised, and come up with a unique, compelling function to get us to snap up the iWatch.

If they do release a watch that doesn't address the problems outlined here I predict the iWatch will fail miserably. Of course, I've been wrong before so Apple might just make me eat crow. 

I'm not a smartwatch designer nor do I play one on the internet so take this with a grain of salt. Actually, I guess I am sort of playing one right now. On the internet.


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